Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|April 9, 2021|4 Minutes|In Editor's Desk

Editor’s Desk

Prince Philip – the gaffes in Africa.

As I write this, crowds gather at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace to mourn the death of Prince Philip, who has died aged 99. A man who spent a lifetime in public service public – a fate he learned of on a summer’s day in Africa. The London press called it the end of an era and the passing of a man with true British spirit.

It was in February 1952 – while on holiday with his wife and future Queen Elizabeth – in a game lodge on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, in northern Kenya, that the news arrived. King George VI had died, the Queen was to return home to take the throne and Prince Philip was to spend the next 70 years walking three paces behind his wife with his hands clasped behind his back – his trademark.

It surely could not always have been a palatable prospect for a young man who had found his sea legs and confidence as an officer in the Royal Navy. He joined at the age of 18 straight from school and distinguished himself during World War; he ended up commanding a frigate.

So royal duties and their constraints were a big change for him. Those close to him say he was a rock behind the monarchy, who took his duties very seriously.

Prince Phillip returned to Kenya, in 1963, to take the salute – in a dazzling white uniform, braided with gold – when the East African nation gained independence. It was the scene of one of the prince’s most famous gaffes.

As soldiers hauled down the Union Flag for the last time from the Nairobi sky  Prince Philip turned to Jomo Kenyatta, the veteran of the armed struggle to create the country and the first president of the new Kenyan nation, and said: “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

There were many cringeworthy faux pas to follow down the years -often bordering on racism – that rarely failed to make headlines. Maybe in the dreary round of royal public engagements he was just bored and felt he had to say something with his legendary sharp wit.

Another gaffe – I don’t think has been written before – came at the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Durban, South Africa, in 1999. It was recounted to me by colleagues at the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Two senior, black, SABC journalists were making small talk with Prince Philip during a break in protocol. They were telling him about food shortages in Africa.

“Of course, in Africa, it is different you can always climb up and pick fruit from the trees,” replied the prince with a smile.

The strange thing about this story is that neither of my colleagues – who had every right to be offended – were not. They found it amusing in a way they would have received a bizarre utterance from an elderly uncle.

You can be sure Prince Philip didn’t lose any sleep over any of his cringeworthy statements. He was a man with a crushing wit who didn’t suffer fools gladly.

But I will leave you with a final measure of the man – the proud wartime naval seaman. Like many royals he wore a chest full of clanking, glittering, medals for gallantry and bravery. He was the only one who had earned each one of them.